“Scuffin” or “Mone”: 4 TIPS to TEST the TASTINESS of your STORIES

My daughter loves creating new recipes and one of her favorite strategies in the kitchen is to take a tried-and-true favorite, and then add an unexpected twist.  Most of the time her creations are delicious, but tonight, as I’m reminiscing about her joyful kitchen spirit, I’m reminded of the time she proudly offered me her fresh out of the oven creation – “the scuffin”, as she called it, a creative combination of two favorite teatime treats – the muffin and the scone.  Sounds delish, right?

We thought so too, so before actually tasting them, we posted on Facebook this delectable-looking picture along with this tantalizing description:  

“Crispy on the outside like a scone and fluffy on the inside like a muffin…with chocolate chips too. Yum!”

Immediately, “likes” and congratulatory comments filled my Facebook timeline.  But, to our horror, when we took our first nibbles we discovered they were… awful! Thus, in the interest of full-disclosure, I added this to the post:

“…to be perfectly honest, once we tried them we both agreed that they were a little heavy and they stuck to the paper. I think, in all honesty, that they should be called “mones” instead of “scuffins” because that better connotes the feeling you have have after eating one.”

Writing can be a lot like baking. Often, the results of experimentation are successful, but sometimes instead of picture book “scuffins” we produce “mones”.  So what’s the secret to distinguishing between story drafts that are light and delicious, as opposed to “mone” inducing?  Miss A. and I are so glad you asked. Here are our suggestions:

TIP #1: Give your “scuffin”, er story, time to cool before tasting. This will allow you to remove yourself a little from the the process, so that you can discern – without so much emotion – whether your creation is light and delicious… or not.

 TIP #2: Keep track of  drafts so you know what’s working or not in each round of recipe, er story, creation, so you can add and modify intelligently. After assessing her recipe notes, Miss A. thought, perhaps, that she added too much oil to her batter, and in revising for the next batch, she used less.  The new “scuffins”, IMHO, were better, as a result. Likewise, if you keep track of changes/additions/deletions made to each draft of your story, you can more easily assess and make effective improvements.

TIP #3: Let a few trusted critiquers sample and give feedback on your latest “scuffin” in progress.  As Miss A. discovered, the feedback from a slightly more seasoned baker (me!), was just what she needed to take her “scuffin” from “mone” to “magnifique”!

TIP #4: DO NOT send to local bakeries, i. e. publishers, too soon!  Not that Miss A has even considered marketing her kitchen creations, it’s still good advice. Far too many new writers, submit their work to publishers far too quickly when patience, I have learned, is the better way… by FAR!

Well, that’s it from the Sassi kitchen today!  Happy story baking!

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. This oldie but goodie was first published in April 2018 (but it was baked in 2016).

QUIET WALKS and BABY SQUIRRELS: Four Tips To Help the Writer in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew!)

On a recent walk, I noticed a squirrel scurrying up and down a tree carrying bits of thatch and leaves, to line her nursery, I guessed.  A couple weeks later this baby squirrel showed up on my porch. Could he be one her babies, I wondered? 

I don’t about you, but during this pandemic, going on walks has become a soul-nurturing necessity, so every day I strive to intentionally slow down and savor the little things. With all that’s going on the world right now, it would be easy to miss these little glimpses of joy and wonder and that would be a colossal shame. 

This deliberate slowing down has gotten me thinking about my life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying writing days are those in which I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder chirping birds or baby squirrels (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world with the child-like wonder we all once possessed.

Heaven knows, the publishing world moves slowly enough, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from pausing to see the world from the unrushed and wondrous perspective of a child!

Now, in celebration of child-like wonder and the pleasures of slowing down, I offer you:

 FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)

  1. SPEND TIME with a CHILD.  There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one.  Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes. (During this time of social distancing, this can be done virtually!)
  1. CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still – or go on a quiet walk as I do. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel!  And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
  1. DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS.  As soon as libraries and bookstores re-open, settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ!  Pick old favorites as well as newer titles.  Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir.  (And for now, go investigate the books you have on hand, or tune in to the many virtual read-alouds that are temporarily available – thanks to the generosity of many publishers – during this unprecedented time.)
  1. Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS.  These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings.  I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it.  I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.

Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and revel in the wonder of small joys – both new and old – and transform them into amazing new writing pieces.  

JOURNALING and OTHER STRATEGIES: Thoughts on Unleashing our Creativity

If you have followed my blog anytime at all, you have probably noticed that I love writing analogy posts where I draw comparisons between writing and life.  These are, in fact, my favorite kinds of posts.  

A couple of years ago I was even asked in an online interview by the delightful Margaret Langan over at Read.Learn.Repeat about these types of posts. The specific question was: In what way are these writing exercises useful in your pursuit of writing picture books?  

My answer was as follows: 

For me, a big part of picture book writing is making creative connections—taking a snippet of inspiration and then playing with it, combining one idea with a seemingly totally disconnected different idea, pairing characters with unusual settings, switching things around etc. 

But to do that, I need to warm up and I do that by beginning each day with my journal. I use that journal to record free-flowing thoughts, observations, joys and struggles and… analogies.

This time spent journaling is crucial for getting my creative juices going and those creative analogies just seem to flow out of me—much the way my rhymes do.  And once written, it seems a shame not to share them, especially since over the years I’ve gotten such positive feedback from writers and friends who find them encouraging and inspirational.

(For the full interview plus links to all her wonderful interviews with authors and illustrators, press here.)

I still stand by this answer and I still begin each day by journaling and those journal entries still serve to unleash creative sparks that invariably lead to analogies as well as new poems and stories. 

However, I would now also add that this creative unleashing – at least for me – can be released in other ways too – such as immersing myself in any sort of special project, such as knitting, sewing, drawing or cooking.  If intentional, even something as seemingly uncreative as going on a walk or cleaning the house or weeding can also be creative because I have found that the calm, repetitive nature of those three things in particular is conducive to contemplating ideas and playing with words – both important parts of the creative process.

And why am I making a point to share this with you this week? Easy!  I want to encourage you (and me!) to step into the days ahead eager and open to unleashing our storytelling creativity in intentional ways that can range from free writing in a journal –– to pondering plot while plodding along the sidewalk –– to whatever other specific activity you find yourself immersed in this week.  

Happy unleashing, all!

WRITING GLASSES: Four Tips to Transform Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Stories and Poems

One of the best things about being a writer is that I get to spend my days seeing the world through writing glasses.  Oh, they may look like ordinary glasses, but they most certainly are not.  It’s through these glasses that over the years I’ve transformed seemingly ordinary moments/observations into engaging poems, stories and picture books. 

So now, in celebration of stories and poems that sparkle, here are four tips for using your writer’s glasses to turn your observations into stunning stories.

TIP #1: Wear your glasses each and every day.  Gathering ideas takes intentionality and discipline.  It means stepping into the day with a spirit of wonder and being observant and open to the little moments of inspiration that come your way. This, for me, is one of the fundamental joys of being a writer. 

TIP #2: Write down sparks and observations as soon as possible.  I’ve learned over the years, that if I don’t write down an idea right away, that it sometimes evaporates. That’s why I always carry pen and index cards in my purse. I also use the notes feature on my phone to quickly jot down ideas.  For more thoughts on this check out my post Fairy Wash: Thoughts on Capturing Ideas.

TIP #3: Some sparks won’t come into focus for a while – and that’s okay!  I’ve learned over time, that my best sparks or ideas are the ones I let sit for a while, before using them to write a story or poem.  Sometimes it takes awhile to see how that spark might work itself into a story. But that is just part of the process. For more on taking this long-range view, check out my post Write Like a Turtle.

TIP #4: Remember that the goal isn’t replication- but transformation! As a beginning writer, I mistakenly believed that if I was writing a fictional piece inspired by something that actually happened, I had to write it exactly the way it happened. As a result my early stories were cumbersome and flat and ordinary.  As soon as I let go of that inner need to be fully grounded in reality, my stories began to “dazzle”.  No longer weighed down by the desire to replicate the situations that inspired them, I let my inner creative spirit take over. The result? I wrote stories that were fit for publication!. For more on this, check out my post The River: Thoughts on Writing as Reflection versus Replication.

Happy writing, all!

PUMPKIN TIME: Thoughts to Inspire Your Writing

I have always loved pumpkins. There’s something about their shape, color and flavor that makes me happy.

Here’s the proof:

1. When I was little I requested pumpkin pie instead of cake to serve at my seventh birthday party. (My mother honored the request but wisely also baked a cake because it turns out not all children like pumpkin pie at birthday parties.)

2. I’ve always enjoyed carving jack-o-lanterns, then toasting and eating the seeds.

3. I dressed my children up as jack-o-lanterns when they were babies.

4. I once did a picture book photo shoot in a pumpkin patch!

5. I currently have a pumpkin-themed picture book manuscript that’s out on submission with a handful of publishers.

5. This blog has not just one, but TWO pumpkin-themed posts!

That last bit of evidence (the two blog posts one) also proves that pumpkins don’t just make me happy, they also getting me thinking about writing and how we can make ours better. So, now, without further delay, I’d like to inspire your writing this week with my two pumpkin-themed blog posts. Pick the one that grabs you first, or read both. Either way, have a WONDERFUL pumpkin-inspired writing week!

My first pumpkin post focuses on pumpkin bread, (Yum!) with a writerly takeaway about the importance of conflict in baking good stories. It was inspired by forgetting to stir in a key ingredient. Can you guess what it was? Find out here: Pumpkin Bread: Thoughts on Baking Good Stories.

My second pumpkin post focuses on the pumpkins themselves and how the stories we write are like pumpkins. Curious? Then pop on over and enjoy this post: Pumpkin Time: Thoughts on Carving Stories.

P.S. Final thought: My daughter celebrates her birthday this week can you guess what she’s requested for her birthday breakfast? Pumpkin bread! The apple (I mean pumpkin) doesn’t fall far from the tree (I mean patch) does it? Just saying. =)

VACUUM BAGS: Thoughts on Beating the Inner Editor

lost toy bits

Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!  No, my vacuum cleaner’s not broken. It’s just that when my kids clean up their toys, they inevitably miss a few little pieces, camouflaged in the dense pattern of the oriental carpet. They hate losing pieces, so in addition to increased vigilance at clean-up time, we’ve established a fail-proof method of retrieving lost toy bits.

Whenever the vacuum bag is full, we take it outside, place it in on a disposable plain surface,  and carefully cut open the bag. Then, using tweezers and sticks, we gently and methodically go through the contents. As each lost item is found, my kids rejoice. It’s almost like Christmas morning emerging from a vacuum bag! Over the years, this strategy has saved countless doll accessories, beads, and Lego pieces from being thrown away.

If you think about it, the “delete” button on your computer is a lot like a vacuum cleaner. When I first began writing, I pressed “delete” far too often to vacuum up words or phrases I didn’t like. At the end of the day, I’d find myself staring at one or two flat, stiff paragraphs or verses and all the variations I’d played with and then hastily “vacuumed up” were gone forever!  I quickly learned it was too early in the process to be tossing phrases out.

Here are four strategies I use now to keep my inner editor from throwing away words too soon.

Ditch the eraser. When writing longhand I never, ever cross out or erase anything.   Instead, I put my extra thoughts in parentheses or write two versions – one right after the other – separated by dashes.

Keep a word repository. When typing, I don’t permanently delete anything. Instead I “cut” the phrase or sentence that I think isn’t working and “paste” it in a repository at the end of the document. That way ALL my thoughts are captured and preserved, so when it comes to revising I have lots to work with.

Save and date drafts. Throughout the writing process, I keep a separate file for each piece, saving and dating “in-progress” copies of each round of revision. This helps me see the progress and journey my piece has made so far, which in turn helps me shape and polish the final version.

Be prepared. Wherever I go, I try to keep pen and paper handy so I don’t lose phrases or potential story twists that pop in my head.  Safe on paper, I can transfer them to the appropriate project file to be excavated as the project progresses.

How about you?  How do you keep track of deletions/ additions as you write, revise, and polish your pieces?

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing some of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. This oldie but goodie was first published in December 2012. I was reminded of it recently because as I was vacuuming, I heard the tell-tale clatter of something other than dust being sucked up by the vacuum. Upon retrieval, I discovered it was – money! (Just a quarter, but still.)

PORCH PONDERINGS: What’s YOUR Beeswax?

I’m trying something new on Facebook today. What do you think? (And what’s YOUR beeswax?)  

Check out the original post that inspired the video here. Happy Writing!

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Writing on Assignment with Children’s Author Shari Barr (and a GIVEAWAY!)

There are many paths to publication. And today, I’m delighted to have children’s author Shari Barr as my guest, sharing her experience writing on assignment. I found her post so encouraging and I hope you will too. Thank you, Shari, for sharing your experience! (And thank you, also, the giveaway opportunity!) Take it away!

My First Big Break—Writing on Assignment

by Shari Barr

Breaking into traditional publishing isn’t always easy, but there are lesser-known ways to get your foot in the door. Many major publishers develop series in-house and then hire authors to write it. I landed my first fiction deal in a work-for-hire agreement.  

Not only was it great fun, I also learned tons about the publishing world and walked away with four books to my credit.

Several years ago I learned about Barbour Publishing’s new Camp Club Girls mystery series through a Christian newsletter I received. After contacting the editor and expressing interest in possibly writing for them, I was invited to submit a sample chapter and subsequently contracted, along with five other authors, to write the 24-book series.

Each writer was assigned one of the six main characters in the series. My books were all written from the viewpoint of McKenzie Phillips, a witty, thirteen-year-old from Montana. Each writer was given a brief synopsis of our assigned books, but we were able to make each one our own. Since I’m a farm girl and saw the need for more farm related stories in children’s literature, I created McKenzie’s character to fit the mold of a modern farm girl. Of course, a few plot elements were inspired by some of my most memorable childhood stunts, except I made her a lot more fun. 

The characters in the series meet while sharing a cabin at church camp. In book one the roomies use their individual skills to solve a mystery they’ve encountered at camp. In each of the following books, two girls meet at various locations around the country to solve a mystery. The remaining four girls help sleuth by using cell phones and computers. Oh, and I must give credit to Biscuit, the wonder dog, who uses his canine detective skills to provide clues.

My first three books of the Camp Club Girls series, McKenzie’s Montana Mystery, McKenzie’s Oregon Operation, and McKenzie’s Branson Brainteaser released in 2010 and 2011. McKenzie’s Montana Mystery was reprinted in Get a Clue! Camp Club Girls, a special 3 stories in one volume, and released in 2012. Camp Club Girls: McKenzie released April 1, 2019, a four-in-one volume containing all McKenzie titles, including my fourth book, McKenzie’s Iowa History Mystery.

I may not be a household name, but when fan mail comes in from little girls, it’s all worthwhile.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Shari Barr always dreamed of being a writer. She was raised on a farm spending many summer days hiding in her treehouse, reading her stack of library books. When her pile dwindled (usually the same day she checked them out,) she made her own adventures, unknowingly creating plot elements for future middle-grade novels. She has published numerous articles and devotions and wrote Sunday school and Vacation Bible School curriculum for David C. Cook. In addition to the Camp Club Girls series, she wrote Memory Maker Bible Crafts for 2nd and 3rd Grades, published by David C. Cook in 2008.

She and her husband live on a farm in in southwest Iowa not far from where she grew up. Since their son and daughter are grown, she spends her free time taking photographs of farm life and spoiling their stupendously handsome and intelligent mutt, Hank.

To view her photography, feel free to follow her Facebook page “Mama Barr’s Farm” at https://www.facebook.com/ShariHarnessBarrAuthor/

NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!

Shari has kindly offered one copy of her newest book with Barbour, “Camp Club Girls: McKenzie” to one lucky winner. If you’d like a chance to win her book, let me know by leaving a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident with a street address (as opposed to a P.O. Box and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Wednesday, 7/17/19 at 12:01 am EST. The giveaway is now over.

SPIDER WEBS: Thoughts on Weaving Stories

Lately, I’ve been noticing an abundance of spider webs dazzling in the early morning light as the first rays catch their dewy threads. Their strength and structure amaze me. Each spider web I notice follows the same basic pattern. First the spider established her outermost framework and then worked her way inward in concentric spirals until she reached the heart of the web.

There’s no doubt that there is a universality to spider webs.  But look closely and you will see that even though they share many common characteristics, each web is also a unique creation.  Each web’s shape and size varies depending on where it was woven and on the delicate dance the spinning spider performed as she leapt from anchor point to anchor point. One web I saw was spun snuggly between two slender stems of Queen Anne’s lace, stretched oblong by early fall breezes.  Another was hung high among prickly pine boughs, round and tight, so as not to get prickled, yet big enough to capture a passing fly.

As writers, it sometimes seems that every story has already been spun and that there couldn’t possibly be a new way to tell anything. Yes, it’s true, like spider webs, most stories fit into plot types and there are common structures.  There are also universal themes.  And like spiders, who all use liquid silk to build their webs, our stories too, are created using the same building blocks – words.

But does this mean originality is impossible? Not at all. Like webs, the best stories do have a universal quality about them.  But, if we listen to our inner creative spirit, something unique will unfold within that universal framework.  A spider web’s uniqueness emerges as she weaves in response to the specific setting and conditions surrounding that creation.  She also leaps and dances in a way that only she can.  Another spider spinning her web in the same spot would create a different web altogether.

So take heart as you write and listen to your deepest inner voice, the one that expresses itself in a way only you can. If you do, then I am convinced that, like a spider weaving uniquely concentric circles, you’ll weave the story as only you can.

Happy spinning all!

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing some of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. This oldie but goodie was first published in October 2013. I was reminded of it this past week while visiting my dad in Lexington, VA. Each morning my husband and I took a lovely stroll through a long grass meadow on our way into town and what did we see? Hundreds and hundreds of spider webs catching the first morning rays as they shimmered in the tall grass.

SPECIAL TREAT: Inspiring Young Writers… in Australia!

SO SPECIAL! A lovely 3rd grade teacher from Australia reached out to me because her students are writing their own stories and she thought it would be special if they could meet an author and ask questions about writing. We tried to make it “live” but couldn’t get a good connection, so instead I sent them a short video introducing myself and welcoming them to ask me questions via email. On Friday, Ireceived their questions and they are WONDERFUL and I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them. I’m also including a short excerpt from my video chat with them. What a marvelous use of technology and the former teacher in me LOVED sharing my joy of writing with the next adorable generation “down under”!

First, the video clip:

Now a picture from their end along with the sweet thank you notes they penned on the class white board:

Finally, three of their amazing questions, along with my responses. (There were 26 in all.)

How does it feel being an author? (Lauren)

It takes a lot of discipline and you have to have thick skin because it takes a lot of rejections before a story is accepted by a publisher. All that hard work feels good, though. Plus, it’s a chance to see the world through writer’s eyes and that brings me joy.  I love being an author.

 Are any of the characters in your books describe you or a family member? (Ava)

I would say that the characters or, more typically, the events in my stories often describe things that have happened in our family. For example, the scene in LOVE IS KIND where the tooth fairy has forgotten to come was inspired by a very traumatic situation in our house when the tooth fairy forgot to come as well. Don’t worry, though, because in both the story and in real life, it all worked out in the end.

Were you shy about the idea of other people reading your stories and books? (Taleeya)

I was a bit at first – especially when the first reviews of the books came out! Now, though, I treasure the idea of children and their parents enjoying my books at story time. They were a joy to write I hope they bring joy to others who read them.

(And the other 23 questions were just as thoughtful. Well done, girls!)

HAPPY READING AND WRITING, ALL!